It’s me, not you: Why local bands of today break up
By Winifred Wong
“Wah…. All the feels coming back man, talking about this.”
I sit across Muhammad Magad (who goes by Mudd), the 27-year-old guitarist and former member of Singaporean experimental math-rock band Atlas. After the wistful declaration, he breaks out into an embarrassed laugh.
I check in quickly to ensure that my interview is not distressing him. “Good and bad lah,” he assures me.
We’re not discussing romantic relationships, although you could argue that music is a lifelong love affair. I’m asking Mudd about why Atlas disbanded in 2015.
Which would be unexpected of a band that enjoyed moderate popularity and success since they formed in 2011, although this is something that Mudd claims otherwise.
“We were deeply rooted in the underground subculture,” he says.
Atlas playing at the 2013 Mosaic Music Festival by the Esplanade.
Photo Credit: Audrey Cheong
Highlights of their three-year career include playing for the Mosaic Music Festival in 2013 and Baybeats in 2014. The latter was their last gig with their original line-up.
What then, are the real reasons bands disband?
Departures of band members
When members of the band walk away, it is a blow to band morale, and it is sometimes hard to carry on especially if a band is concerned with staying true to their original sound.
While still active today as a three-piece, homegrown alternative rock band Electrico have largely faded from the limelight after the departure of lead guitarist Daniel Sassoon, followed by keyboardist Amanda Ling, in 2008 and 2009 respectively. The band had previously bagged two nominations at the MTV Asia Awards for Favourite Artist Singapore at the peak of their career.
For Atlas, they faced a similar situation, except in their case they decided to call it quits.
“The final nail in the coffin was Catherine leaving. Being the only human touchpoint of the music, the vocals, she had a big part to play in defining the band sound,” Mudd says, referring to the departure of their lead vocalist Catherine Yeo in 2015. At that point they were playing in a revised outfit after replacing bassist Timothy Neo and drummer Jiang Lim, who left the band after three years for pursuits overseas.
Equipment, recording and gig venue expenses are a drain on band resources, and deter them from playing on.
“We spend more money mixing and mastering than getting back the profits,” says 27-year-old Ridhwan Malik, the soft-spoken guitarist and former member of indie-rock band wyd:syd, with reference to the costs of recording and putting out an album.
wyd:syd performing at Timbre@Substation for Singapore Originals.
Photo credit: Jasmine Chye Fong Yee
In their four-year career, wyd:syd released two EPs, and was a Baybeats Budding Band alongside Atlas in 2014.
The band played their final gig at the Esplanade in January this year before declaring an indefinite hiatus.
“Everyone willingly pays for jamming and good gear to sound good and perfect their craft ‘cos that’s expected of you,” Mudd says. “But as a musician you don’t expect to make the money back.”
He goes on to say that after subtracting venue expenses and backline (amplifiers and equipment that have to be set up and used on stage) from the revenue made from a gig, bands are lucky to break even.
Mudd discloses that a large international production company once asked for their tracks to be used in one of their productions, but made it quite clear that they would not be remunerated.
“Passion is not a valid currency, at least to the bill collectors,” said a musician (who prefers to remain anonymous) from a local band that has played for many large festivals and released multiple EPs. The band recently announced that they were disbanding.
Differing musical direction and goals
wyd:syd tried to outdo themselves with a bigger, better EP after the success of their second EP, but struggled with amalgamating ideas of the band members.
"Based on the different genres we were interested in, one of our biggest challenges was putting everything together," Ridhwan said.
"In the end we just wanted to end it while it was going good."
Hope for the scene?
Luckily, the industry promises returns, for the most commercially successful acts at least.
Local outfits such as Gentle Bones and Sam Willows have held full-house concerts in Singapore, playing to a new generation who are willing to pay for local music.
Mudd commended the Baybeats mentorship programme for its focus on commercialisation. "It would also be helpful for new faces to have more gig opportunities, and more labels to manage the bands here."
Ridhwan hopes for more jamming spaces for musicians to sit around and create, without incurring the costs of having to book a jamming studio.
He also encourages that audiences be more open minded to diverse and niche genres.
That the Facebook pages of wyd:syd and Atlas are still active, even though the bands are not, smacks of nostalgia, perhaps signalling an openness to start over.
Both bands have expressed the possibility of a comeback. The thrill of performing live is hard to beat. “It makes you feel like sh*t, cos of the butterflies right? But there’s still a rush,” exudes Mudd.
At the end of the day, they’re just glad to have found each other.
"The music we listen to is so niche, that when you find band members that share the same music interests, you just want to hug each other and never let go," Mudd smiles.